28 Years, No Points: Chasing A World Cup Win
As Japan have already shown so memorably, the Rugby World Cup is more than just a high-profile showcase for the All Blacks and other trophy-winning big-hitters. It also provides a platform for the sport’s lesser nations. While the likes of South Africa, England, France, Ireland, Australia and Wales all qualified automatically for the tournament, some 84 countries competed for the remaining eight berths in the draw. Teams as diverse as Denmark, Mauritius, Guam and Iran were all involved.
Japan’s exploits in Brighton, however, were remarkable because they were so unforeseen. Major upsets are relatively uncommon in international rugby. During the seven tournaments to date, six competing countries have failed to notch up a single win, and in some cases even a try. Below are potted overviews of those same half-dozen nations: skilled enough to qualify but yet to taste victory.
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Played 4 Lost 4 Points scored 57 Points conceded 196
The history of rugby in Russia is a surprisingly long one, harking back to at least the 1880s and predating the Bolshevik Revolution by a full three decades. Thought to have initially been introduced by a Scottish expat, the sport embedded itself thanks to a dedicated but relatively small following, and had developed sufficiently over the 20th century for the country to be invited to the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987 (an offer they declined on political grounds).
The domestic playing conditions, however, are sometimes far from ideal – one 1978 league match is on record at having taken place at minus 23˚C, requiring players to wear gloves and balaclavas. And you thought a wet afternoon in the West Country was unappealing.
Played 3 Lost 3 Points scored 29 Points conceded 172
When the French-speaking West African nation qualified for the 1995 World Cup, the achievement was seen as heralding a new dawn for African rugby – particularly as the squad had overcome massive odds to reach the tournament. Many of the team heralded from the same tough harbour district of capital city Abidjan.
Their appearance at the World Cup, however, was sadly overshadowed by a very serious injury suffered by winger Max Brito. Since then, and not for lack of effort, ‘Les éléphants’ haven’t quite managed to repeat their World Cup qualification exploits. Rugby’s place in Ivorian society is down to a historical French influence.
Played 3 Lost 3 Points scored 18 Points conceded 122
The actor Javier Bardem, who won an Oscar for his performance in No Country For Old Men, once represented Spain at international level. He’s on record as stating that “being a rugby player in Spain is akin to being a bullfighter in Japan”. But Bardem – perhaps fortunately – didn’t make the squad for the 1999 World Cup, Spain’s only appearance to date, when the country lost to Scotland, South Africa and Uruguay, failing to score a single try.
The sport’s popularity is at its greatest in the north, thanks to the cross-border influence from southwest France.
Qualified 1987, 1991
Played 6 Lost 6 Points scored 84 Points conceded 309
The country has been on the world rugby map for well over a century, with the British Lions incorporating what was then Rhodesia into their South African tours as long ago as 1910. As with rugby in many other African nations, however, the sport is still tied to the legacy of the colonial era, and there are limited opportunities for top players to progress beyond high school level.
This has led to many Zimbabwe-born players heading elsewhere to pursue careers, among them Aussie flanker David Pocock and South African prop Tendai “The Beast” Mtawarira. Despite this, the country qualified for the “repechage” stages of the 2015 tournament, losing the preliminary round match to Russia in the distinctly un-African climes of Siberia.
Played 4 Lost 4 Points scored 38 Points conceded 209
Football-mad Portugal currently has only around 6,000 registered rugby union players – or one for every £50 that national poster-boy Cristiano Ronaldo reportedly makes weekly. But while the country may not have a large pool of talent to choose from, the national team is still ranked 29th in the world, and shocked many by qualifying for the 2007 World Cup.
Defeats to New Zealand, Romania and Scotland followed, but Os Lobos (The Wolves), as the squad is known, gave a noble account of themselves. They were the first totally amateur side to compete in the tournament, and scored tries in all three games. Portuguese rugby has traditionally relied heavily on the involvement of students who have encountered the sport abroad.
Qualified 1997, 2001, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015
Played (prior to 2015 tournament) 15 Lost 15 Points scored 144 Points conceded 974
Ever-present at the World Cup since 1997 – and the only one of the six teams here to be on show at the 2015 edition – Namibia now also hold the dubious honour of having conceded more than 1,000 tournament points. The team’s nadir came in 2003, when they lost 142-0 to Australia. They’ve already come up against the All Blacks this time around, which was some test for a squad still containing a number of amateur players with full-time jobs, including farmers, insurance salesmen and a dentist.
They’re captained by Saracens flanker Jacques Burger, but it’s still no small achievement that they’re consistently ranked as Africa’s second best rugby nation. Prior to the tournament, Namibian president Hage Geingob had exhorted the team to “show that world stars like Richie McCaw are also just ordinary players.”